In Ashtanga yoga, the postures are set and bundled in different series (6 in all), each progressing in difficulty. One of the great and difficult aspects about teaching ashtanga yoga is the responsibility of giving out postures, and the physical and mental gravity that this can sometimes entail.
It’s always wonderful to see a student grow and learn a new posture. In the beginning, teachers can be more liberal in the dispensing of postures, the foundational poses and the first half of primary series is much more about opening, purifying and healing the body. Perfection isn’t necessary (because it will come with more and more practice anyway), just stability and alignment enough to get through the postures safely. It’s already plenty challenging committing each new pose to memory to start with and the work of refining the poses happens daily.
For those who come to the practice with more available flexibility and steadiness or those who have no pre-existing injuries, moving forward may not be an issue. But for many, there will be a number of road blocks, “bottle-neck” postures that often slows the “progress” of practice down. There, we practice and wait for the appropriate opening or stability.
In a way, we are set up with a sort of catch-22, the practice often captures our attention by way of new postures, we feel empowered by learning new things, we feel great meeting and mastering new challenges and then it leads us to a place where we must perform a seemingly impossible task day after day. It can be frustrating or boring. I won’t lie, I’ve seen students so demotivated they never come back to class when they reach this point.
As a teacher, there is a lot to consider. Getting a pass usually means a student has performed the proper bind, as in the maricasan(s) or supta kurmasana. But sometimes getting into the posture is not aligned with really “getting” it.
And I often ask myself, can a student move onwards safely? Even then, there are different degrees of readiness. Everyone is so different, the practice is so personal, what is right for one person may not be right for another. There are lessons embedded in postures that will give students better access to postures later down the road. And the wait itself is a great austerity, or tapas, that teaches patience, humility, self-acceptance and love.
Very few students will learn the more challenging postures quickly—and that is a good thing! Good because we really learn when the lessons have taken hard work and time to get through. Likewise, understanding our own expectations is a big part of the psychological cleansing that happens when we practice and inevitably meet our ego.
There is an idea that there is a standard for each posture, and that’s part of the myth of the strictness of ashtanga yoga. Truth: there is no standard in the postures because there is no standard body, everyone is different, unique in their body and their approach. The way the method is shared largely falls in the hands of the teacher and in the community there are strict teachers and lenient teachers, there are some who are a little of both, and many who are strict with some but not others. (See what I mean by no standard!). I’m not saying there is no standard whatsoever, there’s is a standard in the philosophy, that being a thoughtful, honest and authentic person is what it takes to be a good yoga practitioner.
Personally, I want my students to move forward. But, over the years, “forward’ has changed for me. When I started teaching, thirteen years ago, I wanted students to be happy—and, of course, a new posture equates happy. The truth is the happiness of achieving a posture is temporary, especially if it comes with the risk of injury. And true happiness cannot be rushed or forced.
These days, I prefer to teach the yoga rather than the posture. Often, the pose also comes more easily when yoga, that precious equanimity of mind, body and breath, is more established. And when the posture takes it’s time or modifications become necessary the real yoga practice takes away the sting of being unable to perform one posture and we learn to move forward regardless.
Ashtanga yoga is a very efficient yoga practice, no effort is wasted, as long as the effort is correct and appropriate. The pauses when they come are a part of the flow, no stream runs straight to the sea, some moments will be more static, others like swift rapids.
Classes are ongoing in-person at Nūn Center and online over zoom. We meet Monday to Thursday 7:30-10:30 and Led Class at 8:30 on Fridays. New students must commit to the month program, this will allow us to establish the foundations of practice.